Total ignorance of this indelible fact of nature – that one calorie for you may mean more or less than one calorie for someone else – is a primary reason why past and present one-diet-fits-all fads may have failed you before and will fail again (and again, and again).
So don’t look with envy at your sibling, spouse, or friend who is losing weight faster than you on the exact same diet. When it comes to safe, effective, and permanent weight loss, YOU are the only ONE who matters, and even more so if you are a woman.
Sadly, you’ll find little to no discussion of gender-specific influences on weight loss rates in popular diet books and programs. This is an embarrassing oversight because gender impacts weight loss (and weight gain) in countless ways, so much so that I believe diet books should have be written separately for men and women.
So here we go:
AGE DIFFERENCE. You are not your 20-something daughter. She is at the peak of her procreation mission with a metabolism to match. She is still learning about the world around her and has an incredibly busy brain, the largest consumer of glucose. Her body may still be growing. She is definitely healthier. She may be taller. Her body has more muscle, even if she is the exact same size and shape as you are. She has only half of your genes; the other half is from her father. She is more active simply because she can be. She doesn’t need the gym (yet). She sleeps better than you, even if she sleeps less. She is luckier simply because she is younger.
THE TAKEAWAY: Younger women of the exact same shape, weight, height, and even genetic background will always lose weight faster on the exact same diet as older women. So if you are still eating just like your adult daughter, don’t be surprised that you are getting fatter than her or not losing weight just as fast. If you still would like to trade clothes with her, join the gym, eat less, or, even better, do both.
SMALLER MUSCLE MASS. The female body contains significantly less muscle than males of similar shape and weight. Women experience faster loss of muscle throughout pregnancy, breastfeeding, and natural aging. Since muscles are one of the most demanding users of energy, their age-related loss reduces the rate of energy uptake, and, correspondingly, increases the gain of body fat.
THE TAKEAWAY: Accept your innate difference with men and younger women, and eat less than your husband, boyfriend, or muscular girlfriend. Even better, join the gym and build your muscles from the ground up so you can enjoy heartier meals and the occasional glass of wine with impunity.
GLUCOSE UPTAKE BY MUSCLES. Along with the brain, central nervous system, and blood, muscles are the most prolific consumers of glucose. That is why most men on a low-carb diet lose weight faster than women and don’t gain it as quickly with a larger intake of carbohydrates.
THE TAKEAWAY: Women require fewer carbohydrates than men, yet at the same time improperly structured ultra-low-carbohydrate (a.k.a. ketogenic) diets (with not enough high-quality protein and too many fats) may not be appropriate for older women because the diets may accelerate muscle wasting. Fool me once, Dr. Atkins, shame on you. Fool me twice – fat on me. (I will discuss a muscle-sparing low-calorie diet in future posts.)
GREATER FAT MASS. Women have a higher ratio of body fat to total body weight than men. Body fat is essential for reproductive functions, healthy pregnancy, and nursing. As body fat falls below a certain level – around 10% to 15% – infertility and amenorrhea (the absence of a period) set in.
THE TAKEAWAY: Because body fat plays such an essential role in female reproductive and overall health, women gain fat faster than men on similar or smaller amounts of foods. Don’t eat as much as your male partner of similar proportions, unless you don’t mind gaining weight.
THERMOS EFFECT. As you gain fat, your body lowers the internal rate of energy metabolism (i.e., produces less heat) because your internal organs are cuddled in the warm blanket of your own fat, or, as doctors would say, adipose tissue. That is why overweight people are far less sensitive to cold than skinny ones. Inversely, the thermos effect may cause a rapid overheating of internal organs in a hot environment. For this reason heat strokes represent a significant hazard for obese individuals.
Unfortunately, this thermos effect (my term) has a profoundly negative impact on your ability to lose weight because your rate of metabolism is so much lower, and this has little or nothing to do with your thyroid or adrenal glands that you may think are “underactive.”
THE TAKEAWAY: If it is too late for you, do everything you can to prevent your daughters and younger sisters from gaining weight. Expect a longer journey toward your own normal weight. Increase your level of physical exercise to increase your metabolic rate. Keep the thermostat up so your body isn’t spooked into hibernation mode (more on this later) when it is cold inside (from central air) and out.
HEIGHT. A person’s height is an important factor in energy metabolism and, correspondingly, in obesity and weight loss. All other things being equal, taller people lose weight faster because their “lengthier” bodies expend more energy to support cardiovascular, respiratory, and thermogenic (keeping itself warm) functions.
This doesn’t mean that tall people don’t become overweight or obese – of course they do. Still, on the exact same diet they will be losing weight faster and gaining it slower. This observation may not seem particularly earth-shattering in itself, but it becomes important when determining portion sizes.
When foods are plentiful, satiety is portion-oriented, not need-oriented. In other words, we don’t eat as much as we need, but we eat as much as we want.
Moreover, portions nowadays are designed to accommodate an “average” person’s capacity to ingest foods until his or her stomach is loaded to the gills. Thus, when there are more tall/large/overweight people in society with larger stomachs, short/small/skinny people inevitably overeat. Adding insult to injury, their smaller stomachs stretch out gradually to accommodate the corresponding amount of food on their plates. Guess what happens next…
THE TAKEAWAY: The shorter you are, regardless of gender, the more attention you must pay to portion sizes. You will also face the greatest difficulty during weight loss because your stretched out stomach and mental perception of satiety are preconditioned to eating larger portions of foods for longer. It is quite hard to eat little and leave the dinner table earlier when you are accustomed to huge portions and long, leisurely dinners. Fortunately, stomachs do shrink back to their original capacities. After successfully completing a properly structured weight loss diet, overeating again will be just as uncomfortable as when you were young and normal weight.
INNATE RESPONSE TO REDUCED CALORIE INTAKE. Your body doesn’t really know the difference between weight loss and starvation. All it knows is that it is under duress from undernutrition and facing extinction. That is why a scarcity of nutrients during weight loss diets, or even from poor nutrition, instantly lowers your energy and structural metabolism, throttles down weight loss, and speeds up the accumulation of body fat, all to protect your reproductive health and milk supply for potential offspring from the possibility of starvation-related death.
THE TAKEAWAY: Ultra-low-carbohydrate (a.k.a. ketogenic) diets (espoused by the bodybuilders whose ultimate goal is to lose every iota of body fat, literal paleo-freaks [i.e. nothing but unrestricted lean protein], and the aficionados of original Atkins diet with unlimited fats) are not only counterproductive for women but also the primary reason for near-instant weight rebound and ensuing obesity.
That doesn’t mean that ketogenics diets are unnatural, harmful, or ineffective – not at all. I just wish to convey that this particular weight loss technique must be applied along with a properly balanced low-calorie diet; with a good deal of attention to one’s ability to digest and assimilate natural proteins in order to spare muscles from wasting and prevent gastric disorders; and with equal respect to one’s age, health, and a number of others factors that I’ll be addressing in future posts.
ENERGY REQUIREMENTS. With all other things being equal – ambient temperature, level of activity, age, height, and weight – the female body has a lower demand for energy from proteins, fats, and carbohydrates than the male’s, due to not only substantially less muscle but also smaller lungs and a smaller heart, less blood volume, and an inherently less physically demanding response – flight instead of fight – to external stress. This difference is particularly significant in the reduced uptake of energy from glucose by the blood, muscles, and central nervous system.
THE TAKEAWAY: It is worthwhile to repeat that an identical piece of cake for one person may represent twice as many relative calories to another, similarly shaped person. In other words, when my wife eats cake, her body uses a portion of its calories for energy, and the balance goes right into making body fat, while my body uses the entire allotment of calories from the exact same cake exclusively for making energy, with nothing left for fat.
The same can be said about fats and proteins, though the difference may be not as drastic as with carbohydrates because a larger portion of these nutrients is used for structural metabolism. The demands of structural metabolism in women may be greater than in men (with all other things being equal) because female reproductive functions demand a greater deal of nutrients.
To summarize, if you are a woman, your dietary requirements for energy, particularly from carbohydrates, are substantially less than a man’s. As trivial as this statement is, girls and women rarely consume portions adjusted to their particular needs and end up paying a price for it later in life with (a) earlier obesity, (b) higher rates of obesity, (c) and greater morbidity (the rate of incidence of a disease) related to obesity.
When it comes to losing weight, the situation is also stacked against women, who need to decrease their caloric intake considerably more than men to accomplish the same amount of weight loss in the same span of time.
REPRODUCTIVE HORMONES. In middle-aged women, the reduction of estrogen related to age, pregnancy, lactation, stress, undernutrition, and contraceptives may lead to gradual weight gain and a diminished rate of weight loss. Since adipose tissue (i.e., body fat) produces estrogen in parallel with the ovaries, I believe the female body compensates for the age-related decrease of ovarian estrogen by lowering the rate of energy metabolism in order to accumulate more fat, thereby allowing it to produce more estrogen.
THE TAKEAWAY: Real foods in a traditional diet will help you maintain a high level of sex hormones all the way into menopause. Post-menopausal weight gain is a natural process. Closer to menopause, adjust your diet and exercise accordingly to prevent fat gain. By maintaining strong, supple, and busy muscles, you’ll be able to eat more without gaining weight. Age-appropriate diet and exercise are far better options than cancer-prone hormone replacement therapies, unless absolutely medically indicated.
OVULATION. Ovulation raises body temperature, a well-known fact that has been used for millennia to determine a natural algorithm for birth control, also known as the “natural family planning” or “periodic abstinence” technique. The hormonal activity and physiological metamorphosis during ovulation stimulates energy metabolism, hence the rise in temperature and appetite to keep the “burner” going.
THE TAKEAWAY: Use this natural phenomenon to burn fat by reducing carbohydrates rather than feeding the “burner” with loads of them. If you are prone to weight gain, avoid hormonal contraceptives that interfere with ovulation because they will inevitably slow down your metabolic rate.
MENSTRUATION. The period represents a particular challenge for weight loss because, as during ovulation, the body goes into overdrive and requires more energy and nutrients for rebuilding and restoration (plastic needs), including micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and microelements. During ovulation and period, the body specifically demands extra proteins and essential fatty acids to synthesize hormones and other fertility-specific substances. All of these factors and corresponding mood swings may stimulate a voracious appetite that’s often satisfied with useless (nutritionally speaking) carbohydrates rather than essential fats and proteins. This unbalanced consumption of nutrients during periods leads to the gradual loss of muscle mass and the accumulation of fat.
THE TAKEAWAY: Pay particular attention to your nutrition before and during your period. Overeating is a habit, not a necessity. If you overeat junk food, your body still isn’t getting what it wants and will stimulate hanger, appetite, and cravings even more. A traditional diet with real foods is the best way to preempt period-related binges. Intense, overpowering food cravings during periods and ovulation may be the symptoms of borderline undernutrition. In this case, use professional-grade supplements for a short while to boost up your body’s stores until real foods will be able to satisfy all of your requirements on their own.
PREGNANCY. Women are programmed by nature to accumulate body fat during pregnancy. These extra stores are essential for the substantial energy and structural needs related to pregnancy and not-so-distant breastfeeding, and provide as well an extra blanket of warmth for the fetus.
THE TAKEAWAY: Bring the thermostat up – way up. 76º to 78º F (24º to 26º C) is the optimal temperature for preventing the slowdown of your metabolic rate in order to conserve energy. High temperatures also prevent fat accumulation, your body’s method of protecting your internal organs (particularly the uterus and ovaries) from the cold. If your workplace is a freezer and you can’t change it, file a complaint with a labor board, union, health department, or whoever else will listen and has a leverage to change it. As far as I am concerned, cold offices are a form of discrimination against women.
BREASTFEEDING. Failure to breastfeed is a primary cause behind postpartum weight retention (i.e., getting fatter and fatter after each baby). Long-term milk production burns fat deposits far more efficiently than any form of non-extreme exercise. Besides, breast milk fertilizes the healthiest, happiest, and chubbiest babies. Intentionally using formula – the very first processed (i.e. factory-made) product in your baby’s life – instead of breastfeeding is a major contributor to obesity among American women with children, and, of course, their children in the not-so-distant future.
THE TAKEAWAY: Breastfeeding facilitates weight loss for you and healthy development for your baby like no other diet. To produce an average of 700 ml of breast milk daily, healthy women expend approximately 490 calories that are derived from 7 grams of protein, 31 grams of fat, and 48 grams of milk sugars, primarily lactose. Thus, on a weight-neutral diet, the extra fat in milk comes right from body fat. At 31 grams per day you may lose at least 11.3 kg (25 lbs.) of fat simply by breastfeeding while still enjoying a normal diet. This example, of course, is a gross oversimplification, but it is still pretty close to reality.
So plan to breastfeed for as long as you can, or at the very least until your baby grows teeth and can chew solid food. Giving a toothless child solid food is a health and development hazard because her body won’t make gastric acid and enzymes until she can thoroughly chew and masticate (mix with saliva) the chunks of solid foods.
Finally, extended breastfeeding suppresses menstruation in many women all the way until weaning. This pause defrays the onset of menopause by a similar length because the natural absence of a period preserves ovarian follicles and defers menopause until well into one’s fifties.
ANTHROPOLOGY. Ancestry plays a significant role in weight gain and resistance to weight loss, particularly for women whose roots are in regions with cyclical climates. Because of climate-dependent food supply patterns, such women are genetically predisposed to rapid weight gain during the summer and autumn in order to survive less plentiful seasons or outright starvation, as well as to continue breastfeeding their offspring without interruption. This phenomenon is apparent from exceptionally high rates of obesity among African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and persons of South-Pacific ancestry. Omnipresent air conditioning tricks their bodies into hibernation-like state in anticipation of the colder season, while a limitless availability of carbohydrate-rich food facilitates rapid weight gain.
THE TAKEAWAY: If you or your children have a genetic predisposition to gaining weight, watch out for ambient temperature at home and in the office, and adjust your year-round diet to levels that allow you to maintain steady weight.
EATING OUT. Short of Nieman Marcus’s café-cum-bistro spa menu intended for predominantly slim, well-heeled patronesses, I’ve yet to see a restaurant that provides a gender-specific menu. Hence, identical steaks are smacked in front of a petite woman and an oversized, bodybuilding man as a matter of course. Women, who dine out often, must be mindful of this aberration and demand half portions or split main courses with their companions.
THE TAKEAWAY: Insist that restaurants serve you half portions “due to dietary restrictions.” Don’t be shy to request it. It isn’t embarrassing, but rather a sign of class and wealth. Call the restaurant in advance to find out if half portions (or “spa-size”) are available upon request. If they refuse to accommodate you, just don’t go there and post a negative review on Yelp, Zagat, OpenTable, Fodor’s, or any other online restaurant guide. Punish them with your dollars and reviews. Complain to your local department of health. This is the only way change will come to this male-dominated industry, which is extremely hostile to women and weight-conscious men alike because they aren’t as profitable to serve.
CHRONIC DIETER SYNDROME. Women have a propensity for recurrent dieting. Each consecutive diet cycle, especially one low in fat and protein, compromises the body’s essential endocrine functions, slows the rates of metabolism, and stimulates the over-consumption of carbohydrates, which leads to the accumulation of more fat and reductions of muscle and bone mass (the key factor behind osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, periodontal disease, and eventual tooth loss). Each consecutive weight loss cycle results in more and more fat stores and a corresponding decline in overall health. This results in even more weight gain.
THE TAKEAWAY: A weight loss diet is like an antibiotic. If you start taking one, you need to finish the full course; otherwise, you create antibiotic-resistant bacteria that may harm you later. The more you diet halfway, the more resistant your body becomes to weight loss and more accommodating to weight gain. So if you start a diet, do it right, do it for as long as it takes, and once you’re there, don’t return to the diet that made you overweight in the first place. That – helping you reach the finish line with your health and sanity intact – is the goal of this project.
FOOD PREPARATION. Fair or not, women spend more time in the kitchen while cooking for their families. Unfortunately, the continuous exposure to food comes with an increase in appetite, hunger, cravings, and, in many cases, inevitable overeating.
THE TAKEAWAY: Food preparation is a definite obesity hazard. Structuring low-calorie diets while still having to cook for family (or professionally) is hard, but not impossible. I will address this particular challenge in later posts.
As you can see from all of the above, if you happen to be a man, praise the Lord for your innate ability to eat more without gaining weight or lose more weight on the exact same diet as your wife or girlfriend.
Sure, there are black swans in our midst, just like my lucky wife who can eat most anything she likes with impunity, but if you aren’t one of them, accept your differences and eat accordingly.
That’s why when it comes to the particulars of my weight loss program, “one diet fits all” approach does not apply. More on this in the next and future posts.
Previous posts from the “Why Diets Fail?” series:
For your health and safety, please read these important Weight Loss Common Sense Warnings and Disclaimers before commencing a reduced calorie diet.
Picture credit: © 2013 iStockPhoto LLP
Konstantin Monastyrsky holds a degree in pharmacy. He is also an expert in forensic nutrition and has written four books about health and nutrition, including the acclaimed Fiber Menace. He’s twice been featured speaker at the international Wise Traditions Conference.